Good news — Penguin Books have issued Penelope Mortimer’s 1962 novel, The Pumpkin Eater, as a Modern Classic, reawakening interest in this unique portrayal of a woman-on-the-edge, and introducing it to a new generation of readers.
It’s a compelling read, but not a comfortable one.
To a certain extent, the novel, and the 1964 film, scripted by Harold Pinter and directed with a sure, sensitive and arty hand by Jack Clayton, should provide an entertaining and perceptive look at marriage and relationships, but over and over again it challenges our expectations and overturns our assumptions.
The grim little rhyme from which the novel takes its title casts the man as villain. Peter the Pumpkin Eater couldn’t keep his wife to himself so he imprisoned her (some say dead body) in a pumpkin shell from which she couldn’t escape.
Well, we know where we are with this, we think, settling down for an energetic hate-fest directed at a possessive, domineering, cruel man. But we don’t meet him. We meet Mrs Armitage, currently married to her fourth husband Jake for 13 years, who may be seen as a prisoner of many things, but surely not of the spouses she discards with ease (although, to be fair, husband number two did die).
The book’s opening passages describe Mrs Armitage’s conversations with a psychiatrist and reveal a sense of her being trapped by her own psyche and her own fertility, the latter of which has produced a prodigious amount of children, the number kept deliberately ambiguous.
The first-person voice is direct, honest, wry, self-aware. These conversations punctuate the narrative, which traces her descent into ‘involutional depression’ and her route to tentative recovery as she endures abortion and sterilisation and her husband’s frequent infidelities.
Although the novel and the film are sometimes placed in the 1960s’ social realism category, with, for example, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey, Mortimer’s style (and Pinter’s) is elliptical, disjointed, almost surreal.
I recommend reading the novel and watching the movie back to back. It’s a bizarre experience, but, strangely, one which enhances the slippery, elusive nature of the work.
What Pinter invents and what he chooses to leave out collide with your memory of the book, so you end up almost inside the head of the novel’s unreliable narrator, who says at the end that some of the things she had recounted were real, some were dreams, but they all existed in her own understanding of truth and reality.
Our discomfort comes from our inability to give a rational and consistent basis to the emotional reality of her pain and angst, much in the same way as Mrs Armitage tells her psychiatrist that she hates mess and dust and disorder.
We look for labels and for explanations. What causes her emotional collapse? Is it Jake’s infidelities? Is it the frequent betrayals, beginning in early life with her childhood friend who sexually captivated her father and her boyfriend, and the older man, Mr Simpkins, who came on to her? Is it frustration and being ‘only’ a wife and a mother? Is it what we now call empty nest syndrome? (She certainly has no financial worries. But yes, we know, money doesn’t buy… blah blah.)
The contradictions confound us. She loves being a kind of earth mother surrounded by her noisy, rumbustious, incredibly well-spoken children — but what about the ones who are sent to boarding school and spend holidays with their grandmother?
The scenes in the film which show the boys meeting their mother are heartbreaking. They speak like polite strangers. We are used to the stereotype of fathers and boarded-out sons communicating, all backslaps and chin-ups, but to see a mother so little engaged challenges our assumptions. They are such sweet boys, as well. Let’s hope they grow up to have happy and balanced relationships with women. Hmm.
Central to the film is Mrs Armitage’s meltdown in Harrods. In a wonderfully filmed sequence, we follow her aimless progress through the store, past the gleaming refrigerators, the vacuum cleaners, the caged birds (aha), past the curious glances of shoppers, ending up in the linen department where she cries ‘extraordinarily large tears’ which splash on to the stiff cloths.
In An Unmarried Woman (1976) Jill Clayburgh’s character has a similar kind of attack in Bloomingdales. When her companion asks if anyone has a Valium, every onlooker reaches in their bag. It’s a funny scene, and you give a knowing grimace as you laugh. It’s distant from The Pumpkin Eater in more than the number of years that separate the works.
The scene in Harrods illustrates some of the incidental delights of seeing London in the early 1960s. All the women, and the men, wear hats, as respectable people did. (Anne Bancroft, magnificently interpreting Mrs Armitage, looks particularly stunning in her range of headgear.) They look solid and drab.
The Armitage milieu, comprising the upper-middle and media classes, has more pzazz, but the whole feel of the film is of the 1950s.
You wouldn’t guess that Mary Quant had already opened her boutique on the King’s Road, or that in Hamburg four lads from Liverpool were honing the musical skills that would spark a phenomenon. And just creeping in over the horizon was the contraceptive pill, which may have changed Mrs Armitage’s life.
Or not, as the case may be. And that’s the joy of this teasing, elusive history of a woman in distress.
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